So far, so good! A look back on our life and times as a family band…
It all began in March 2013 with our first-ever band meeting and rehearsal. We were starting as a trio (with Ross Kantor and Meg Patrick) that needed to become a four-piece for an upcoming gig. We sat in the IHOP in Bloomfield (the one on Broad Street) and picked through some potential logos that our friend created. That night, we ended up picking the one that now sits atop this page.
Then we came back to my basement to jam. We had our work cut out for us. Less than 2 months to learn a full 3 sets’ worth of children’s songs and classic rock tunes for our first big gig – the Presby Memorial Iris Gardens in our hometown of Montclair. At the time, we had 5 original songs in the mix – those were our top priority.
Flash forward to today, four years later. We’ve seen lineup changes, one for particularly tragic reason. We’ve seen Amy’s role change from behind-the-scenes to that of onstage banter partner, puppeteer, educator, and keeper of the beat. We rocked through a his-and-hers kidney transplant and weathered the complications that came with it.
We created the soundtrack to our family, our daughter’s rapid growth from starstruck 2-year-old to sassy 6-year-old, who actually contributed vocals to our latest album. We poured the best of our creativity and the most resources we could into two albums: Everyone’s Invited! (2014) and Lollipop Motel (2016).
Amy and I joined a community of children’s musicians whose creativity, senses of humor, generosity of spirit and sense of “we’re-all-in-this-together” has continued to amaze and inspire us – from all across the country, other countries, and right in our own neck of the woods. Most of them I became acquainted with online, but at the Kindiecomm gatherings in Philadelphia, some of us really became tight.
Along the way, we’ve learned a great deal from our decisions and our initiatives. Some of the projects we took on were surprisingly successful and helped us out a great deal. Others we could have sworn would be hits left us in a big hole, bewildered. We learned to listen to you, our audience, instead of always expecting it to be the other way around.
We’ve expanded our travel pattern for our shows, starting with our home state of New Jersey and ultimately performing in eight eastern states from Virginia to Massachusetts. Our daughter really loves the out-of-town travel, especially when a hotel with a pool is involved!
Traveling to different towns has also enabled us to share the stage with other great kindie musicians on their home turf. In Amherst, MA, we were recently joined onstage by local Latin GRAMMY winner Mister G. We put together a kindie supergroup in the DC area when Uncle Devin, Marsha Goodman-Wood and Wardell Howell (from Marsha’s band The Positrons) were in the lineup. Darlene Graham (Rockin’ Tots) from Long Island has invited the Jungle Gym Jam to sub for her band at Jones Beach Boardwalk Bandshell for those times of year when she goes on vacation; this has become a great gig for us for the past 2 years!
The artist we shared the stage with most frequently was none other than family YouTube star Miss Nina, who lived in Brooklyn when we got started and now lives near us in New Jersey. We’ve done shows together in Brooklyn, NJ, Delaware (where Nina grew up) and Philadelphia. We started as fans of Nina, as her online performances mesmerised our then 2-year-old daughter. Trading songs and onstage gags with Nina has been an even better experience than I could have imagined back in the beginning. Even sharing a 2-hour car ride to a gig, taking turns playing DJ is great fun with this wonderful, easygoing soul we call Miss Nina.
I’ve also had the honor of welcoming lots of children’s musicians to stages in our own area. In winter/spring 2015 I produced a concert series at Maxwell’s Tavern in Hoboken, NJ, where several of our kindie heroes showed up and did their thing, like Rolie Polie Guacamole – the first modern kindie act whose record we had ever heard. Eric Herman was traveling all the way from his Pacific Northwest homestate of Washington for an east coast swing, so he graced us with a performance. We had fun harmonizing “This Little Light of Mine” at the end of the show. Michael and the Rockness Monsters (a.k.a. Preschool of Rock) gave us an unbelievable sold-out concert series opener, and several other acts didn’t disappoint: The Fuzzy Lemons, Yosi, Heidi Siegel, Erin Lee & Up Past Bedtime, and Mr. Ray brought their “A” game to the legendary venue.
And when we couldn’t cram another band into the lineup we learned the amazing Sugar Free Allstars were coming through town (from Oklahoma), so we scrambled to book them in a small restaurant in Berkeley Heights, NJ! Given that it was their first-ever NJ concert, ticket sales were light, but boy did they put on a show! Those who were in attendance were so blown away that they stocked up on SFAS records and T-shirts. That was a lesson I’ll never forget.
A real career highlight was playing at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park. Our music has gravitated more toward the Jersey Shore sound (think Bruce Springsteen, Southside Johnny) over time and the Pony was right where we wanted to be. Shore based kindie band Little Rockers headlined our first show there and drew a marvelous local crowd (which they then dazzled). A subsequent show combined Miss Nina and Baze (from Baze & His Silly Friends), who had produced both Nina’s and our most recent records, and brought a wonderful, jazzy, rowdy Lucy Kalantari to the seaside stage.
Of course our very first appearance at The Stone Pony was highly emotional. Our beloved bassist “Mr. Lou” DeMartino had suddenly and shockingly passed away as a result of an asthma attack. His life was honored with an amazingly loving memorial concert in which we performed a then-upcoming single “My Superpower” that was to include Lou’s bass track.
In the studio, we’ve had the pleasure of collaborations with children’s artists like Ron “Polka Dot” Albanese, a dynamic performer and renaissance man who also helped me develop my approach to live performance and even directed our “Jungle Gym Jamming” video. Golden-voiced Suzi Shelton gave Free to Be…You and Me a rare and magical quality I still consider myself incredibly fortunate to have been part of. Liz “The Singing Lizard” DeRoche made the track “My Superpower” absolutely sparkle like a powerpop gem with her synthesizer wizardry. As a producer, there was very little that was silly about Baze (expect when we were supposed to get silly….) He elicited some of my best singing and playing through his creative energy, finely tuned ear and reassuring personal style.
Today, we stand on the shoulders of all our performances, collaborators and bandmates. We’ve also taken on something new thanks to the inspiration we’ve gotten. We’re offering an early childhood my-grownup-and-me class called “Jungle Gym Jam Time,” currently taking place in West Orange and Paramus, NJ. We’ve also got a busy performance schedule shaping up for the summer – mostly in New Jersey, but with some out of state travel.
I’m overwhelmingly grateful to my wife Amy, my daughter Holly and my parents for encouraging me to keep going at this through four years of ups and downs. I’m grateful to you, my fellow families, for showing up, reading these stories, recommending us for gigs or even producing Jungle Gym Jam shows of your own! You’ve bought our albums, joined us in giving to charities like St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the Light of Day Foundation, and to specific children in need, like young Xavier who has lived his entire life with heart conditions and complications. And you’ve given me vital advice when I needed it about what to offer next. In another four years, Holly will be 10 and I’m sure my inspiration as a dad will evolve into new territory. Your kids will be bigger too and I hope we’ll still give them something they can’t get anywhere else.
P.S.: Take a fourth off our prices to celebrate!
We’re offering you a fourth off everything in our online store to celebrate our fourth anniversary! Use the code 4years to save 25%. This offer lasts until March 31.
Did you know?
- Before we picked up the name Jungle Gym Jam, we considered names like Unka Jason (my niece’s old mispronunciation of my “title”) and The Swing Set, which I thought made us sound too much like a swing band.
- We used to pack all our gear into a mid-sized Ford Fusion. I’d often have to drive to the gigs alone because every bit of passenger space was needed for amps, instruments and the PA system. Amy and Holly would follow behind…
- When Holly was 2, she’d come on stage with us – not to perform, but to nonchalantly much on her snacks while facing the audience.
- We were inspired by having discovered music like Laurie Berkner and Justin Roberts for Holly to listen to when she was one year old.
- I was a singer-songwriter for quite a while before making kids’ music. In 2003 I created and released an album titled “American Road” and then performed at bookstores and coffeehouses throughout NJ, NY and PA in support of it.
- Our present lineup is made up of me, Amy, Ross Kantor on drums (with Miguel Rodriguez ready to jump in for Ross), Casey McCleary on harmony vocals, and Chip Moore on bass (with Amelia Chan and Alyssa Menes covering for his overseas gig).
- Past members include Meg Patrick, Judy Helbig, David Rosenblum, the late Lou DeMartino, Sean Wolfle.
- Guest musicians include Dave Cushing (producer of “Everyone’s Invited!”, John Ginty (touring organist with the Dixie Chicks), Andy “Squeezebox” Sandel, Bob Cannon and the horn section from the Defending Champions: Matt Ryan, Matt “Shooby” Schoenebaum and Jovan Alvarez.